National Football League

Urban Meyer plans to use Travis Etienne as the new Percy Harvin

May 16

When your heart is broken, all you can do is bounce back and adjust. Nobody has figured that out more quickly than Urban Meyer.

The new Jacksonville Jaguars coach was blunt in the wake of his first NFL Draft, saying that the New York Giants "broke our hearts" when they selected Florida wide receiver Kadarius Toney just ahead of their second pick in the first round.

"(Kadarius) Toney," Meyer said. "I've got to know him over the last couple weeks and obviously with my connection with Coach [Dan] Mullen and those guys. I just think, if you watch him play, he's a human highlight reel."

But Meyer and the Jags pivoted quickly, instead taking running back Travis Etienne, who just so happened to be a Clemson teammate of Trevor Lawrence, their No. 1 overall pick. Perhaps the 5-foot-10, 210-pound Etienne could fulfill a role similar to what Meyer envisioned for Toney

"Someone said why would you take another running back? He's much more than a running back," Meyer said at the time. "He's a slash."

And Meyer apparently wasn’t joking around, as he’s already showing that he has big plans ahead for Etienne. 

While Lawrence has had a light workload during Jacksonville’s rookie minicamp, the opposite has been true for Etienne, as he’s received a transparent glimpse of what Meyer has up his sleeve.

According to ESPN reporter Michael DiRocco, Meyer’s plan crystallized in his mind the moment he drafted Etienne, and he told his new athlete that he would spend most of his time learning the fundamentals of playing receiver.

At the worst, Meyer mused, he’d end up with a running back who could be a pass-catching threat out of the backfield. At best, he’d have something much better – a player who can beat you from anywhere on the field.

Etienne has already proven he can be a dangerous weapon in a variety of ways, not only rushing for 4,952 yards in his four years at Clemson, but also catching 102 passes for 1,155 yards. Forty-eight of those receptions came in his senior season.

And Etienne, for his part, is completely invested in Meyer’s plan. In fact, Etienne returned to Clemson for his senior season to work on his pass-catching ability.

"I feel great about it," he said. "It’s going to help me maximize my opportunity and skill set. I feel like Coach knows what he’s doing and I think it’s going to work out well. … Football is a game of matchups. We’re just trying to get the best matchups."

According to DiRocco, Meyer is hoping to turn Etienne into a weapon like Percy Harvin, who many fans remember as a do-it-all receiver who befuddled NFL defenses across his eight-year NFL career. What many might not remember is that Harvin played his college ball for Meyer at Florida, where he would line up all over the field. Harvin gained more than 1,800 yards on the ground and another 1,900 via pass receptions in three years with the Gators.

And this sort of strategy only makes sense in the modern NFL, where the bell-cow running back has become more of an anomaly than the norm, and versatile athletes like Christian McCaffrey and Tyreek Hill present massive puzzles for defensive coordinators to attempt to solve every week.

Can Etienne become a player of that caliber? That remains to be seen. 

For what it’s worth, FOX Sports NFL Draft analyst Rob Rang gave the pick a "B" grade, writing that while the pick was surprising, "A surprising pick does not make it a bad one, especially when the player is as talented and reliable as Etienne."

But there was also plenty of skeptical reaction around the NFL on Saturday, as some questioned the wisdom of the move, and wondering if Etienne would be better served learning some of the nuances of the running back position.

Meyer clearly has a vision for Etienne, and both he and his player seem to be eager to put that vision into action. And if you’re giving your rookie quarterback a security blanket at the same time, that seems to make sense as well.

The Jaguars aren’t going to use Etienne as a grind-it-out running back. Those things are passé in the NFL anyway. Instead, they’re planning to use him as a hybrid weapon, a heat-seeking mismatch finder.

In the modern NFL, that’s what it’s all about. Whether or not Etienne can pull it off is another question altogether.

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